André Poulheim on designing for Bang & Olufsen: “We make it so natural that you are not frightened by technology”
You can tell how much Danish tech mavens, Bang & Olufsen value first impressions just by a quick glance at their portfolio. Granted, state-of-the-art design is a definitive aspect of the brand's DNA — but don't forget, so are their world-class audio systems.
It's a tall order for the designers behind every gleaming masterpiece at Bang & Olufsen. Their job isn't just to make the product look like a million bucks, but to also support the auditory expertise which the brand is coveted for — a top-notch sound system is ultimately, the brand's first and foremost existential cause.
So what's it like bridging design and technology in perfect harmony? We check in with André Poulheim, the German designer who's responsible for a handful of the brand's speakers — notably the iconic Beolab 90 and Beolab 50. Below, he chats about the friendly fights he has between the B&O engineers and what the main considerations are when designing a winning piece of technology.
In your own words, how would you describe Bang & Olufsen?
It's about evoking emotions and having a special relationship with a product. Honestly, I would have laughed (earlier in my career) if you told me that one day I would be designing for such a fascinating brand like B&O.
Prior to this, your design studio Noto had zero experience in designing for technology. What was it like taking on the very first technology project?
It was amazing. But as a designer, when you can work for a brand like that, it's an experience that's full of pride but also full of burden. It was funny when we were invited there for a tour of the factory; we got goosebumps just by witnessing all that craft and energy. It's dream for a designer. And later that afternoon, the vice president touched my shoulder and said, "Can you feel the burden?" And yes, we could.
What was the first product you ever designed?
I would say the first time I really designed something was when I was a kid — I was addicted to Lego bricks (and they're coincidentally from Denmark as well). I spent hours with it, and I still do today with my son, so I think that was an integral part for me then to realise how it felt to build and create things.
"We wanted to create the next icon for the vision of sound."
Let's talk about the Beolab 90. It was a big project — what was the whole process like?
We wanted to create the next icon for the vision of sound and this idea started off with a prototype. Based off user research, we were first inspired by a lady who told us that the main product in her living room she was most attracted to was her chandelier. The reason was because every time she looks at it, it looks different from every angle. That was when we started to work on a polygonal frame.
We wanted to make a product that could change the sound in a room, at the same time, also changing its shape. We chose a fabric that had a slight reflection so that you can see the light dancing when you start walking around it.
"We make it so natural that you are not frightened by technology — you just want to experience it and have that beautiful sound."
Obviously designing a tech product is different from designing anything else. Tell us more about the main differences and considerations.
I think with B&O, the approach is not being able to feel the technology inside. The technology is very much domesticated. But for instance, when you think about classic interior designs like working with sofas, kitchens and bedrooms, you have lesser limitations.
You can't imagine how many limitations you have when you work on a product like [a Bang & Olfusen product] because it's so complex. This product is packed with components — it weighs over 130 kilograms. So you have to deal with all that, and the main challenge is when the user looks at it, he or she isn't supposed to see it as an audio device or technology but instead, watch a delightful experience unfold. We make it so natural that you are not frightened by technology — you just want to experience it and have that beautiful sound.
"Every surface has its purpose. There are design elements on the inside as well."
Lastly, what are the key aspects to a good design in terms of having a design that complements audio at the same time?
If you look at audio products and what we did on the 90 and the 50, they enable the sound. The look of the product is important but that's only half of the experience, so it has to sound like what the sound engineers wanted. We call it the 'Friendly Fight' at B&O. We push each other to make it in the end like it is. I believe good design happens when you keep its aesthetics in mind yet the product makes you happy when you listen to it.
Every surface has its purpose. So if you look inside on the 90, you will find out that here, at the front, is the big bass driver and on the backside, you have all the access to the amplifiers so you can open it like your engine. There are design elements on the inside as well.
Beolab 90 and Beolab are now available in all Bang & Olufsen stores.